Author and political activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993) is most commonly lauded as the first Aboriginal poet to publish a collection of verse. Her writing, informed by the oral traditions of her ancestors and guided by her desire to capture that unique, Aboriginal inflection using the English language, strove to share the nuances of the author's beloved culture with a wide audience.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (pronounced UJ-uh-roo nu-NUH-kl) was born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska on November 3, 1920, in Minjerriba, also known as North Stradbroke Island. Stradbroke, unlike other Aboriginal areas, managed to maintain an unusually high level of tribal culture. Oodgeroo's father, Edward, was of the Noonuccal tribe (sometimes spelled Noonuckle, Nunukul , or Nunuccal ) and her mother, Lucy, was from inland. Unlike so many of their Aboriginal neighbors, the couple was not made to relocate, and Oodgeroo vividly recalled how her father taught his children about Aboriginal ethics and hunting skills. They hunted small game and fished only to feed themselves and others in their tribe, never for the sake of killing. She was taught to be resourceful, and took pride in her family's ability to circumvent many of the difficulties of Government-instituted poverty by making what they needed from whatever was around, particularly the things left in the white man's garbage dumps.
Oodgeroo began life left-handed, which was never an issue until she entered school and was punished for using her left hand to do writing and needlework. She attended the Dulwich Primary School, where she frequently received blows to the back of her left hand and was made to use her right hand instead. Not surprisingly, her formal education stopped at the primary level. She left school in 1933, during the thick of the Depression, and started working in people's homes as a domestic servant at the age of 13. In Roberta Sykes's Murawina: Australian Women of High Achievement (1993), Oodgeroo is recorded as saying that an Aborigine could not hope for better than a domestic job, even with schooling. At the age of 16, Oodgeroo wanted to pursue a career in nursing, but found herself turned away by racist regulations that barred Aborigines from joining the program. She spent most of World War II serving as a switchboard operator for the Australian Women's Army Service from 1941 to 1944.
In December of 1942 Oodgeroo became Kath Walker when she married Bruce Walker, a dockside welder and champion bantam-weight boxer. They had two sons, Denis and Vivian, but divorced 12 years later in 1954. Oodgeroo chose to become a member of the Australian Communist Party in the early 1960s when faced with the inadequacy of the established political parties, in particular their failure to address Aboriginal issues and rights. In 1961 she took a position as secretary of the Queensland State Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, and served in that post until 1970. The goal of this group, according to the Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers , was to work "toward the integration rather than the assimi- lation of Aboriginals and [toward] improvements to their civil and political status."
1964 marked Oodgeroo's first publication, We Are Going , and her commitment to using her writing as a weapon wielded on behalf of her people. We Are Going was initially popular with white Australian readers, and grew to be an extremely successful verse publication that still sells a formidable number of copies annually. The title poem was described by the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English as "a moving elegy on the dispossession of the Aboriginal people." Noonuccal, quoted in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature , described it as "a warning to the white people: we can go out of existence, or with proper help we could also go on and live in this world in peace and harmony … the Aboriginal will not go out of existence; the whites will." Shirley Walker's summary of the Australian literary tradition in The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature explained, "Aboriginal women writers in English, such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal … while maintaining their separate identity and the authenticity of their cultural voice, are now taking their rightful place in the Australian literary tradition…. The distinctive feature of women's writing in Australia is its energy, its resilience, and its determination to tell the truth … [providing] the voice of the 'other', a voice from the periphery sometimes harmonizing with, but more often challenging the insistent, optimistic, centralist version of Australian life."
Oodgeroo continued to challenge the minds and hearts of her readers with The Dawn is at Hand , published in 1966. Aboriginal suffrage was finally officially realized in 1967, thanks to amendments to the Australian Constitution introduced and championed by individuals like Oodgeroo Noonuccal. She published My People: A Kath Walker Collection in 1970, which gathered We Are Going and The Dawn is at Hand together under one cover, along with new poetry and prose. The year 1970 was an influential one for Oodgeroo, who was awarded the Mary Gilmore Medal and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). That same year, she returned to Stradbroke and purchased some property on which she built a cultural center and school she named Moongalba. Thousands of people came there to learn about the Aborigines through Oodgeroo Noonuccal's storytelling and boundless energy.
Oodgeroo continued to write, publishing Stradbroke Dreamtime in 1972. This was a divided collection, the first half autobiographical sketches from her childhood and the second half stories told in the traditional manner. In 1975 she was presented with the Jessie Litchfield Award for The Dawn is at Hand (1966), and awarded the Fellowship of Australian Writers Patricia Weickhardt Award in 1977 as well. From 1978 to 1979 Oodgeroo traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship, lecturing on Aboriginal rights. She won the Black Makers Award in San Francisco, California, (1977) for her part in the film Shadow Sister , then wrote and illustrated the children's story Father Sky and Mother Earth in 1981.
Oodgeroo continued to publish a steady stream of material, including a collection of her artwork edited by Ulli Beier in 1985 titled Quandamooka: The Art of Kath Walker , a children's story called Little Fella (1986), Kath Walker in China (1988), described in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English as a collection of verse that affirmed the author's "belief in the power of people to effect positive change." Other works included the children's story The Rainbow Serpent (1988) as a collaboration with one of her sons, The Spirit of Australia (1989), Towards a Global Village in the Southern Hemisphere (1989), Australian Legends and Landscapes (1990), and Australia's Unwritten History: Some Legends of Our Land (1992). One common theme in this body of work was her attempts to make the Aboriginal perspective approachable.
She also took her activism beyond the written word, working on many committees dedicated to Aboriginal interests, like the Aboriginal Arts Board. Australian composer Malcolm Williamson even paired a selection of her poetry to music, calling it The Dawn is at Hand . She taught, spoke and mentored at many schools such as the University of the South Pacific, and received honorary doctorates from multiple institutions.
In 1988 Oodgeroo Noonuccal returned the MBE she had been awarded 18 years earlier to Queen Elizabeth II, protesting the two-century anniversary of European settlement. Her obituary in the New York Times quoted her opinion that the revelry applauded "200 years of humiliation and brutality to the aboriginal people," and she was recorded in Stradbroke Dreamtime as insisting on returning the honor until "all Aboriginal tribes in Australia were given unconditional land rights in their country." She explained that she had accepted it initially because she and other Aboriginals hoped it would open doors, but she explained in the Australian Women's Archives Project , "Since 1970 I have lived in the hope that the parliaments of England and Australia would confer and attempt to rectify the terrible damage done to the Australian Aborigines. The forbidding us our tribal language, the murders, the poisoning, the scalping, the denial of land custodianship, especially our spiritual sacred sites, the destruction of our sacred places especially our Bora Grounds … all these terrible things that the Aboriginal tribes of Australia have suffered without any recognition even of admitted guilt from the parliaments of England … From the Aboriginal point of view, what is there to celebrate?."
Kath Walker also changed her name in 1988 as a way of stripping the label given to her by invading forces, and adopted a traditional name. Oodgeroo means paperbark, and Noonuccal is her tribe's name—hence Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal tribe.
Oodgeroo died on September 9, 1993, at the age of 72 in Brisbane, Australia, of cancer, leaving behind her two sons. A national celebration of black Australian writers had been planned for September 30th of that year at Moongalba, and her family assured the participants that she would have wanted it to take place despite her absence. A trust was established in February of 1994 with the goal of continuing Oodgeroo's work toward an understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Oodgeroo Noonuccal has been described by those who knew her as "direct," "impassioned," "deeply committed," "charismatic," and "controversial." She spoke and wrote bluntly about the mistreatment of her people, so much so that she frequently ruffled the feathers of her many readers while trying to open their eyes. In Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972), she described her girlhood home as a place "stocked with natural beauty … [with] ferns and flowers growing in abundance [and] white miles of sand stretching as far as the eye could see." In the same piece, she lamented the fact that "Stradbroke is dying. The birds and animals are going. The trees and flowers are being pushed aside and left to die," and assured the reader that "greedy, thoughtless, stupid, ignorant man … will suffer. His ruthless bulldozers are digging his own grave." Mudrooroo, an Aboriginal intellectual, coined the term poetemics to describe Noonuccal, whom he identified more as a polemicist than a poet.
In July of 2002 The Australian Workers Heritage Centre opened with the exhibition "A Lot on Her Hands," which focused on Australia's working women. Oodgeroo Noonuccal's life is featured as one of the exhibitions. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English wrote, "Overall her work, and life, was a passionate and articulate expression of wrongs inflicted upon Australian Aboriginal people and of the Aboriginal's indomitable will not only to survive but to flourish." Oodgeroo's seemingly timeless popularity is a testament to both her survival and her prosperity.
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